Monthly Archives: June 2013

Technology with a purpose

A friend of mine complained today that an undergraduate geography professor is requiring students to sign up for a bunch of social networks – Twitter, Google+, and a few others.  they were told that they have to tweet each other, follow each other, etc., very similar to what we are doing in this class, except with one major difference.  The social media part of the course isn’t mentioned in the syllabus, and the professor has not told the students how tweeting and posting fit in with the objectives of the course.  In a face to face course where students already communicate, the extra social media communications are superfluous.  From what my friend said, the students taking the course are really unhappy.

I think this situation brings up a really important point.  If an instructor wants to incorporate social media tools into a course, they can’t take an “everything but the kitchen sink approach.”  Unless the course is about social media, asking students to sign up and keep track of four or five different accounts, in addition to regular course assignments, is a recipe for disaster (or bad course evaluations).  If the professor doesn’t connect the use of social media to the course objectives, then students will feel that it’s busy work or useless.

Another aspect that troubled my friend was the privacy issue.  He prefers to have a minimal presence online, and he is uncomfortable with the Terms of Use for most social networking sites.  Facebook owns our posts.  Instagram owns our photographs.  Anyone who is concerned about privacy and ownership of content is unable to use social networking sites.  Where does this leave the student, who is required to create an account and sign away these rights in order to participate in the class?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think the answer is to expect students to sign up for social media because “it’s fun” or “it makes the course more interesting.”  Technology for the sake of technology can’t be the answer.  The use of social media in a course has to be backed up with solid pedagogical reasons.  It has to be clear how social media fits in with the objectives and benefits students in a way that they won’t get from anything else (like an in-class discussion).  Still, what do we do for students with very real concerns about privacy or, God forbid, safety?

Fun with video!

I attended a workshop last year that featured a presentation from a librarian at Ohio State. She showed videos from the Digital Storytelling project and explained how students, faculty, and community members created digital stories. If you have never heard of digital stories, they are short videos (around 3-5 minutes long) that use images, music, and narration to tell a simple story, usually with a lot of emotion.

Ever since I attended this workshop, I have been really interested in digital storytelling and other ways to use video in the classroom. Unfortunately, my interest is far greater than my ability. Luckily, with digital storytelling, you don’t have to be the next Martin Scorsese to create a great video. I think this is why digital storytelling works so well. Anyone can create one, regardless of age or ability. You don’t need an expensive camera or a professional crew. You don’t need expensive video editing software. Give a group of sixth graders a Flip camera, and they can create a digital story.

Wesley Fryer’s recent post on Moving at the Speed of Creativity offers another great suggestion for using video in the classroom. Fryer suggests that video also can be used to create narrated art projects. Narrated art projects include an image and an accompanying narration that explains the work. This could be useful for all ages, from kindergarten all the way through college. Who doesn’t love to talk about their art work? Fryer also has a presentation explaining narrated art in more detail. I’ve included the link below.

I really love how digital storytelling and narrated art projects can be used for most age groups. It even can be applied across the curriculum. With careful planning, each of these projects could be entertaining and educational.

OSU’s Digital Storytelling: http://digitalstory.osu.edu/

Moving at the Speed of Creativity: http://www.speedofcreativity.org/2013/06/20/visual-notes-and-narrated-art-benefits-of-student-created-videos-on-youtube/

Wesley Fryer’s presentation on narrated art: http://wiki.wesfryer.com/Home/handouts/narrated-art

“The Art of Blogging”

I’ll admit that I’m not a very good blogger.  This is the longest that I have ever stuck with a blog, which means that somewhere out there are several abandoned blogs floating around the Internet attached to one of several email addresses.  I can never seem to stick with them.

Part of my problem is that I’ve never really understood the purpose of blogs.  Sure, I could use it as a journal and record interesting moments in my life.  (There aren’t many – this is southeast Ohio, after all.)  I also could use it as a way to express views on a particular subject, but I don’t feel strongly about anything enough to create a whole blog around it. 

I’ve always admired the people who can create a blog with a really strong sense of purpose and keep up with it over a long period of time.  One of my favorite blogs is Hyperbole and a Half.  (If you like hilariously bad drawings and making fun of poor grammar, it’s a must read.)  The blog works so well because it’s funny, sad, and most of all, cohesive.  The author has a really distinct voice that comes through in each of her posts.  There also is a purpose – to make us laugh.

While reading George Siemen’s “The Art of Blogging”, I was surprised at the many different purposes of a blog.  I have always thought of them as an online diary, but according to Siemen’s, they can also be used for interactive journalism, customer service, community-building, storytelling, and more. I also like the idea that blogs can eliminate barriers.  This is especially important for education.

When using a blog in an educational setting, I think there are some benefits and some drawbacks.  Creating a blog can give quieter students the chance to express themselves in a way that they may not be able to in class.  Reading a blog can remove barriers to students.  For example, in my corner of Ohio, many K-12 students never travel outside the area, so they may never visit an art museum in Chicago or watch a Broadway play in New York.  Through blogs like Two Coats of Paint, students can view great (and not so great) works of art and read reviews and background information about the works.  In some ways, blogs can make the reader’s world a little larger.

 

Community

I am taking another online course at another institution that shall remain nameless.  The course is on graphic design, and it’s very similar to Designing Visuals for Instruction.  After several courses on visual design now, it’s pretty clear that I shouldn’t quit my day job.  Things like composition, color, etc. totally escape me. 

When I signed up for the graphic design course, I expected that it would be very similar to the online courses that I’ve taken at Kent State.  I assumed that there would be a lot of student interaction through discussion boards and a lot of opportunities to give and receive feedback. 

Instead, over the past several weeks, I have been totally alone in this course.  The instructor placed all of the materials in Blackboard and left the class to their own devices.  There are no discussion boards, no chats, no online office hours.  I have emailed the instructor several times with questions about assignments, and I’m still waiting on a response.  The feedback that I’ve received on assignments seems canned, and I’ve been unable to get more information to figure out what I’ve done wrong.  The course already stressed me out because of the subject matter, and now I have the additional stress of floundering around with no way to communicate with anyone else.  It is a very isolating experience.

Online learning doesn’t have to be isolating.  In Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, Will Richardson writes that blogs “expand the walls of the classroom” (Richardson, 2010).  Richardson is referring to the ways that blogs can outsiders, such as experts, into the classroom, but I think this statement also can be interpreted another way.  Online tools, including blogs, wikis, and discussion boards, can expand the classroom beyond a physical location and help students create a community even though they may never meet face to face.  I think this sense of community is really important in ensuring that students are successful in the course.  As much as students (myself included) may grumble about discussion board posts, I really have learned a lot from my classmates by reading their posts. 

As I have been working through the material in the graphic design course, I am really missing the feedback that my classmates could provide.  (Lord knows I need it!)  At the very least, we could bond over complaints about unanswered emails.

Thinking about WebQuests

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep students’ interested.  I am a librarian at a small private liberal arts college, and keeping students interested in library instruction is…well, not an easy task.  Each year, we hold a huge freshmen orientation session where we teach students to use library databases, find items on reserve, check out a book, etc.  It’s not the most exciting lesson to your average eighteen-year-old.  A few years ago, we decided to start setting it up as a scavenger hunt, with the content all based around a theme.  To date, we have used the following themes:

  1. Zombie apocalypse
  2. Pirates
  3. Clue (the board game)
  4. Superheroes
  5. Fairy Tales
  6. Ghost hunters (this year’s theme)

The most successful, by far, was the zombie apocalypse.  Faculty still ask us when we’re going to do the zombies again.  Least successful was Superheroes.  We still haven’t figured out why.  I’m in the process of developing this year’s scavenger hunt (Ghost Hunters), so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to keep students engaged.  As I’ve been working through different ideas, I’ve come to a few realizations about what types of activities keep students interested.

In order to keep students engaged, it has to be something relevant to them.  For example, we thought about basing this year’s scavenger hunt on the old computer game, Oregon Trail.  I talked to several of our student workers – who are around 20-21 years old) – and realized that only one of them had ever heard of Oregon Trail, and none of them had ever played it.  I think we all felt old after that!    The zombie apocalypse worked because of the number of zombie apocalypse books and movies that have been released in the past five years.

The second thing I realized is that the activity can’t be condescending or babyish.  Last year’s scavenger hunt was based on fairy tales.  Even with the number of PG-13 and R-rated fairy tale movies out – like Snow White and the Huntsmen – the students still felt that the theme was too childish.  We weren’t able to make it “adult” enough to appeal to them.

All of this has been in the back of my mind as I started this course.  When I read the WebQuest assignment, the first thing I thought was that my WebQuest had to be interesting.  As I looked through the examples on the SDSU site, I realized more and more that the ones that were the most successful had a theme.  The task that students had to complete fit within that theme and required some creativity.

For example, this WebQuest about Jane Austen asks students to be travel agents and write an itinerary for ghost hunters who are exploring sites related to Pride and Prejudice and Jane Austen.   The WebQuest immerses students in the theme through the images, tasks, and the instructions.  The author of the WebQuest doesn’t step out of the theme at all.  Students have a clear task with a beginning and an end.

While theme is very important in holding students’ interest, creativity is also important.  The most engaging WebQuests that I found required students to complete an assignment that allowed them to exercise creativity.  The least engaging ones, in my opinion, asked students to write an essay or answer a few questions.  For example, this WebQuest on utopias asked students to research different utopian communities and answer a few questions.  Boring!  If I were a student in this class, I would have difficulty staying interested.

The more engaging WebQuests that I found asked students to immerse themselves in the role of travel agent, explorer, detective, or journalist and then research the topic.  The task involved some amount of creativity, such as writing a letter to a fictional character, writing a newspaper article, drawing a map, or something similar.

As I start to work on my WebQuest on genealogy resources, I will be thinking about ways to keep it interesting (both for me and for readers) and creative.